This Teacher Builds Sandcastles

Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine you are at a beach on a beautiful, sunny day. The calm breeze and the rolling waves create a harmony that fulfills your soul.

Your mission on this gorgeous day is to build a sandcastle. Not just any sandcastle; the tallest, strongest and most ornate structure you have ever imagined! You spend all day working on the sandcastle, sweating, and pouring your heart into this masterpiece. You walk away at sunset, beaming with pride and satisfaction.

You arrive at the same beach on the very next day and see that your sandcastle has been destroyed by the waves that rolled in with the high tide. While some remnants remain, the castle that you left standing yesterday is no longer there. You begin again and spend another full day, starting from scratch, on your craft. But it doesn’t last for long.

Day after day you return to the beach and rebuild your castle. Some days are better than others. Yet, you spend nearly 200 days doing the same thing with similar results. How do you feel?

Would you say you have made progress? Are you frustrated that any progress you make daily is ripped away each night? Who are you frustrated with: the sandcastles, the waves, yourself? Or something bigger?

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I have spent the past 189 school days building sandcastles in a high-poverty school. I have worked harder each day this school year than ever before and yet I see similar results today, in June, as I did last August. Some may say that, by definition, what I do is insane. And I’m here to admit…they might be right.

My students are living in generational poverty. Due to circumstances beyond their control, my students and their families face many more of life’s obstacles than the norm. Teaching and learning in a high-needs school has many challenges, too. But the biggest challenge to me is the tide.

While my school has dozens of hard-working, highly-effective, and empathetic teachers devoting hundreds of days to building them up, the students are torn back down every time they step onto the bus. I am here to tell you, first hand, that the tide is stronger than what we can build in eight hours. The tide is stronger than the education system.

If we want our masterpieces to stand tall and firm, the public education system must change. The social justice system must change. Our nation’s views on poverty, success, and everything in between must change. As long as we keep ignoring the issues that keep our impoverished students at a disadvantage, students and teachers will just have to continue to build sandcastles…that is, until we run out of sand.

My Photo Diary: Another Great NCCAT Experience!

Please bear with me as I indulge myself in some reflection on the awesome experience I had at NCCAT (North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching) a few weeks ago. (I apologize for not publishing this blog post earlier…life happened.)

I was approached by Jonathan Wade (@NCCATWade) back in the fall of 2014 and was asked to deliver professional development (specifically, Middle Grades Math C & I) to some teachers from Caswell County, North Carolina. Without hesitating, I said “Sure!” We got the ball rolling in early December and, before I knew it, it was Super Bowl Sunday and I was on my way to the Cullowhee NCCAT campus for an amazing three days of math PD!

I spent weeks brainstorming for this 3-day workshop with Caswell County’s middle school math teachers. At first, I had no idea what I would need to bring to the table to help these teachers. I put myself into their shoes and asked myself, “What PD do I need as a middle school math teacher?” (Well, the answer to that question happens to be a long, long list.) But it wasn’t until I spoke with the lovely Elizabeth Standafer, one of Caswell County Schools directors, that I was able to put my finger on what these educators really needed:

  • Guidance in evaluating the standards (Critical Thinking)
  • The forum to communicate as grade-level teams and vertical teams
  • Uninterrupted time to create year-long pacing guides and outstanding assessments
  • A facilitator to guide teamwork and collaboration

I couldn’t believe it! The Four C’s! Once I realized that the Four C’s are just as critical to educators as they are to students, the rest of the planning was a piece of cake!

From: Conections Academy

Without further ado, here is my photo diary of my time at NCCAT with the amazing middle school math teachers of Caswell County Schools:

Woke up to a dark, cold and gloomy NC morning. (Pretty typical for a February morning.) Fortunately, we stayed warm inside NCCAT's headquarters!
Woke up to a dark, cold and gloomy NC morning. (Pretty typical for a February morning.) Fortunately, we stayed warm inside NCCAT’s headquarters!
We started off sharing our current Glows and Grows as educators.
We started off sharing our current Glows and Grows as educators.
We practiced team-building and collaboration with a Spaghetti-Marshmallow Tower Challenge!
We practiced team-building and collaboration with a Spaghetti-Marshmallow Tower Challenge!
Getting started with the tower creation...
Getting started with the tower creation…
Getting there!
Getting there!
All hands on deck!
All hands on deck!
After I spoke briefly about the Common Core, teachers got their hands dirty in evaluating ALL of the grade-level standards, and grouping them into cohesive units of study!
After I spoke briefly about the Common Core, teachers got their hands dirty in evaluating ALL of the grade-level standards, and grouping them into cohesive units of study!
After the teachers grouped their standards into  units, they began developing their year-long pacing guides.
After the teachers grouped their standards into units, they began developing their year-long pacing guides.
If you could change anything about education, what would you change?
Reflection Time: If you could change anything about education, what would you change?
More planning and assessment creation!
More planning and learning about assessment creation!
The best part about PD at NCCAT? Uninterrupted to COLLABORATE as a TEAM. This is extremely important to today's teachers!!
The best part about PD at NCCAT? Uninterrupted time to COLLABORATE as a TEAM. This is extremely important to today’s teachers!!
Teachers worked in vertical teams (Grades 6-12) to evaluate math standards beginning at the Kindergarten level! This was a special activity  for the teachers to engage themselves in.
Teachers worked in vertical teams (Grades 6-12) to evaluate math standards beginning at the Kindergarten level! This was a special activity for the teachers to participate in and discuss. 
Which standards are taught in Kindergarten? How do those standards serve as a foundation for what is taught in 1st grade and beyond?
Which standards are taught in Kindergarten? How do those standards serve as a foundation for what is taught in 1st grade and beyond?
One last opportunity to reflect and communicate: What was your BIGGEST take-away from NCCAT?
One last opportunity to reflect and communicate: What was your BIGGEST take-away from NCCAT?
BIGGEST TAKE-AWAY!
Most common take-away? The NEED for uninterrupted time to collaborate and plan!
They are fabulous...simply fabulous. Thanks for 3 great days of learning and growing as educators, Caswell County Middle School Math Teachers! You ROCK!
They are fabulous…simply fabulous. Thanks for 3 great days of learning and growing as educators, Caswell County Middle School Math Teachers! You ROCK!

Want some of the resources I shared with these teachers? CLICK HERE or go to the Math Resources tab up above.

Planning Versus Doing: The Planning Quandary

Along with a new year comes a fresh start, a clean slate, and a new chapter to write.

With a new page to write on, you would think that finding a topic to blog about should not be that difficult. I mean, there are so many topics that consume my everyday thoughts: making plans to be a better teacher (part of being a better PERSON), planning my professional development for this year, planning my 12 races for this year, writing effective lesson plans,  planning out the long-term process of earning my PhD, and the list goes on. So why am I having so much trouble thinking about what to post?

Maybe I am having difficulty because instead of spending my time DOING, I am spending my time PLANNING.

PlannerI am a very organized person and planning out events – from tonight’s dinner to my life-long career – is in my DNA. (In fact, my husband makes fun of me because of my inability to eat lunch without planning what I’ll be eating five to six hours later.) But, in all seriousness, I have discovered that in my world, planning often takes the front seat and the doing becomes secondary.

I have always been the girl with the detailed agenda book, multiple calendars around the house, and a desk covered in sticky notes galore (organized in rows and columns, of course). I can’t help it. I’m a planner. I like to know what I am going to be doing each day on my vacation  – hour by hour – and exactly what I will need to pack for the trip…even months out from our departure date. I had the first semester of math units planned out for this school year…last May. Yes, instead of using my full steam to teach at the end of last year, I was planning for the following year.

I don’t think I will ever be able to diagnose the reason behind this neurotic behavior or discover a cure; but I optimistically believe admittance is the first step. Does that mean that I’m on my way to being a Type B, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kinda gal? Nope. Not in this lifetime, anyway. But I think in this new year I need to start focusing on the present. I need to focus more on what I am DOING, and less on what I plan to do in the future. Because, truth be told, most of my plans change, anyway. We don’t have control of our futures. So, while planning takes a lot of the surprise and suspense out of future endeavors, it doesn’t lock everything in.

My “word” for 2015 is BETTER. My goal is to practice being a better person: wife, teacher, learner, runner, etc. But I think I need to add a word in front of that word…now, my “words” are DO, BETTER. I don’t mean act better, but act in the moment better. I must focus on the present better, and not let planning for the future get in my way of doing.

Are you a planner? Does your presence in the moment suffer from your over-planning? Share your story here or with me on Twitter, @thatmathlady. We will DO, BETTER together in 2015!

My First Edcamp!!!!

I did it! I went to my very first edcamp, edcampWNC, yesterday…and now, I am HOOKED! I loved every minute of it and I can’t wait to share my experience with you all!

I have been reading about edcamps for a couple of years, now. I knew they were “informal” conferences of some sort for educators (who Tweet a BUNCH) but wasn’t informed much on the agenda, structure, purpose, etc. My PLN on Twitter talk about their favorite edcamps ALL the time, but since I had not yet shared the special experience, I couldn’t relate and, honestly, dismissed much of what they said. Well, dismiss no more! I am a proud edcamper alumni and I want to share my experience with YOU so that you can join me at the next one (or go to one near your home).

I first learned about edcampWNC on Twitter (I mean, seriously? Where else would @Thatmathlady hear about something related to education?) from my NC PLN. I think @jaymelinton is the first person I saw tweet about it, followed by @mrjamesfrye and then @curriculumblog. These are PLN members who I have followed on Twitter for a very long time and I really wanted to meet them face-to-face. So, I signed up for edcampWNC not really knowing where I was going or why I was going other than to meet these fabulous North Carolinian educators.

I drove 3 hours (yup, left the house at 5:15) and started my journey into the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. I pulled up to the North Carolina Center for Advancement of Teaching campus around 8:30 with some butterflies. I was on the doorstep of my first edcamp and I still had no clue what I was in for! But I immediately spotted @jaymelinton and @ashleyhhurley – and they immediately recognized me and greeted me so warmly – and I just knew I was in for a treat!

Breakfast was still being served, so I surveyed the room of NC educators, desperately searching for faces I may recognize from Twitter. I didn’t recognize a soul, so I grabbed some coffee and sat down on the floor next to a teacher who was hanging back and people-watching like myself. I’m not one to start up conversations with strangers, but I’ve learned that I can talk to almost any teacher about any school topic. Teresa (@NRMSLiteracy) and I chatted about her doctoral work, my aspiration and obsession with starting grad school, and this, that, and the other thing. Before I knew it, our first session was ready to begin! So, the cool part about edcamps is that there is no hidden…or obvious…agenda. The participants create the agenda on the spot in the first session. (We used Google Moderator to “shout out” and “vote” on ideas. I will DEFINITELY be using that in the future!) After 15 minutes or so, we had 16 unique sessions to choose from throughout the day. Wow, just like that. Now, I just had to choose which sessions I wanted to participate in. So many great choices! Can’t I attend them all!? Well, yeah, I could have! Edcamps allow you to move in and out of sessions as you choose. In fact, it is in the “Edcamp Rules” (See: The Rule of Two Feet). The “Rules,” – totally thought of Fight Club when Jamie read these off – which aren’t really rules, prevent you from wasting your time in a session that doesn’t work for you and promote genuine think-tank type of conversations.  

While I saw a few individuals duck in-and-out of sessions, most people who wanted to attend each session participated and were fully engaged in hearty conversations about…well, almost everything education! I went to sessions about implementing 1:1 blended learning, creating learning spaces, things that suck about education (and how to fix those things) and classroom management. I felt like the day was totally tailored to MY needs as a teacher. I needed to talk about ways to improve my classroom – both the relationships with kids and the furniture they sit in – and I wanted to know how other districts roll out 1:1 programs with success. To be honest, I felt like this edcamp was designed specifically for me! I can only hope other educators felt the same way.

But, the best part of my edcamp experience? It was the connections I made face-to-face with the other educators I admire and follow on Twitter. I have an amazing PLN on Twitter, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I really learned that I have an amazing PLN within my home state of NC. I realized during lunch that edcamps draw the best and hardest working educators together to share ideas  and promote growth within the profession. While we were there to learn, we were also there to share ideas to make our community of professionals BETTER! Do all teachers do this? No, not all. But can you imagine how much stronger our schools would become if they did?!  

Needless to say, yesterday’s experience at #edcampWNC was amazing. I have already signed up for my next TWO edcamps in the Queen City. I can’t wait for January and February to get here so I can do this all again!!

My NCCTM Experience

IMG_1828I had the fortune of attending the North Carolina Council of Teachers of Mathematics 2014 Regional Conference in Greensboro, North Carolina on Thursday and Friday. On top of that, I had the greater fortune of presenting – for the first time EVER!! – TWO SESSIONS on a topic that I am very passionate about. I have been looking forward to this conference for weeks and boy, it did not disappoint!

I attended this conference in 2012, and what I had forgotten – which I quickly remembered after a session or two on Thursday – was how much I LEARNED at this conference. I can’t put into words the value of the resources and amazing educators at this conference. I took away so much from the workshops and sessions I attended. Instead of me rambling on about how amazing this experience was, let me get started on the highlights of my two days at the NCCTM Conference:

 

Sheila Brookshire and I pose with the TI Inspire.
Sheila Brookshire and I pose with the TI Inspire.

1. Learning about the TIinspire. The first workshop I attended on Thursday morning was given by Sheila Brookshire, a veteran teacher in Buncombe County Schools (NC). She taught us some cool tricks with the TIInspire – a device I had never used – and gave us some other fun hands-on resources to teach stats to grades 6, 7, and 8. The 90 minute workshop FLEW by and before I knew it, I was off to my next session!

 

 

 

 

 

2. It Ain’t the Kidz. I didn’t go to any keynote speaking events in 2012 and I really regretted that. So I made sure I hit up two of them at this conference. The first one was delivered by Lee Stiff, a professor of mathematics at NC State. He was

Lee Stiff and I after his "It Ain't the Kidz" Keynote speech!
Lee Stiff and I after his “It Ain’t the Kidz” Keynote speech!

discussing his research on urban education and the achievement gap. He discovered that the achievement gap isn’t at the fault of the teachers OR the students, but the system. If we don’t start reaching kids at their own pedagogical level,and provide for them a solid foundation of identity, security, and validity, we will never reach high achievement in our urban schools. This hit close to home for me since I currently teach in an urban math classroom. Dr. Stiff is very passionate about reaching students with more active and engaging classrooms…and listening to his keynote address gave me the reassurance to know that I can make that happen. I can meet my students where they are and help them succeed.

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I was so happy to have a chance to meet Juli Dixon and her inspirational daughter, Alex!

 

 

3. The CCSS Mathematical practices should always be considered by teachers and students. The other keynote speech I attended was given by Juli Dixon. Her keynote was focused on the five essential instructional shifts that she has identified that change the way teachers view and teach the eight mathematical practices. I can’t claim to always think about the mathematical practices when I’m teaching (probably because it is like second nature to me) but it got me thinking. The mathematical practices are just as important as the content we teach.  Yes, students need to know how to multiply; but they also need the meta-cognitive skills to know how they are multiplying. Teachers need to start focusing on the specific practices we are teaching just as we are focusing on the content.

 

 

4. Interactive notebooks are taking over the world! I went to THREE different sessions that highlighted the use and importance of INBs. I saw some GREAT ideas…some I’ve implemented already in my students’ INBs this year, and ideas that I will remember for next year. I love interactive notebooks. I’ll have to blog about those later this year…because they are FABulous!

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A found a fellow GTN member…from Michigan!!

 

5. Common Theme: Grades are still motivators and successful students take ownership for their learning. I know a rapidly increasing number of educators who are jumping off the “grades” bandwagon. However, I found it odd that so many presenters were still mentioning that the top motivator in their classrooms are grades. I’d see a unique implementation of an activity or lesson and ask, “How do you get your students on board with that?”  The reply? “Well, they get graded on it, so it isn’t optional.” Well, it is optional if your kids lack interest in their grades, as several of mine do. Grades still rule the classrooms (in classrooms where good grades are important.) And the students with the best grades are the ones hat take ownership for their learning. (No surprise there.)

I saw so many unique and AMAZING uses of technology at this conference! Blendspace and Presentain (the presentation website I used in my session) were two of my faves!
I saw so many unique and AMAZING uses of technology at this conference! Blendspace and Presentain (the presentation website I used in my session) were two of my faves!

Hey Parents, Please Care about Your Kids’ Grades

If you follow my blog, you know that the first school I taught at is night-and-day from where I teach now. At my first school, the students came to school each day (usually escorted by one parent or both) with their backpacks, full to the brim with books and last night’s homework. While students were turning their homework in and putting their materials at their desks, parents would talk to me about homework, upcoming tests, and their students’ achievement. Students would also come up to me and candidly discuss homework and tests. I really related to these students because they were similar to me when I was a student…always the do-gooder type, trying to please my teachers and parents by doing my work, studying, and maintaining high grades. I could really relate to those kids and I love being able to relate to my students.

After a few years in that charter school, I decided to switch gears and teach in an urban under-performing school because I kept hearing the need for “great teachers” in those types of schools. Although I wouldn’t classify myself as “great” yet, I was trying to get there, and I would say that I am hard-working and passionate about the content I teach. And I felt that my passion for math and my compassion for the students in these dire neighborhoods would be all the motivation those students needed to achieve.

Ha. Yeah, right.

I realized quickly that I don’t relate to my urban students at all. Not only is there a huge difference culturally, there is a huge difference in academic mindset. I began to think to myself: Why didn’t these kids care about completing their homework? Why does an “F” not seem like that big of a deal? 

I had a conversation with my mom, who was extremely involved in my education, about it. And in the middle of our conversation, a light bulb went off.

I was discussing my students’ first quarter grades with her. A majority of my students received F’s. This is not my proudest admittance as a teacher, because when my student earns an F, so do I. But a majority of my students received failing grades, which just boggled my mind. Do you want to hear something even more mind-boggling? Of all those failing grades, which there were many, do you know how many parents contacted me out of concern?

Two.

Two parents contacted me in the first 3 weeks after report cards were sent home. Whoa. Only two parents were concerned that their child received an F in a core subject class? That doesn’t add up.

And then another light bulb went off. Do students work hard to learn the material because they want to learn, or because their parents want and expect them to learn? Do half of my students’ parents even know that their child is failing their math class? Do they know and just don’t care? Is this why my students seem to lack concern?

Looking back, I’m not sure I would have worked as hard if my parents did not care as much as they did. They instilled in me my hard work ethic, I didn’t develop that on my own. If they hadn’t checked every homework assignment and asked to see test scores, would I have been the straight-A student I was, or would I have earned failing grades, too? I’m not sure, but my guess is no, I would not have been a great student.

In my dream world, students are born with an innate desire to learn and do well in school and don’t need parents’ expectations to lead them to greatness. And some kids are wired that way; but I think those special kids are the exception, not the rule. We need parents – the first teachers in children’s lives – to model the importance of hard work and good grades. If parents don’t care, students won’t care. If students don’t care, they won’t learn in the process.

So, this blog post is for parents: please care about your kids’ grades. Model for them that grades – the result of effort put into an assignment or assessment – matter, and when students work hard to earn good grades, they learn a great deal as a result. If parents don’t get involved, that achievement gap is only going to grow between the students whose parents care, and those who don’t.

The Continuous Learning Calendar

I am sitting here, at the beach, at the tail-end of my 2-week break in the school year.

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I can hear you say, “A break? In October? Already?”

Yup. Teachers and students who work and learn on a year-round, or “continuous learning,” schedule get a break in the fall.  And a much-needed break it was, indeed.

This is my second year working on a continuous learning calendar (CLC) and I really like it. I enjoy teaching 199 days, instead of the state-required 180 days in North Carolina, but it makes these infrequent breaks much more necessary and desirable. By the beginning of October, I was starting to feel the impending burn-out that teachers sense around Thanksgiving (and definitely by the winter-holiday break), thus begging for some mercy and time away from school. Our students stepped foot inside our school to begin learning on July 21st and we’ve been going strong, ever since. With the exception of Labor Day, we’ve been working HARD every day for the past 11 weeks. And for every day that we work hard with our students, the next break gains an exponential amount of power.

A lot of people outside of the education industry don’t understand the power that these week-long breaks give teachers. Let’s get the superficial (yet, important) and tangible reasons out of the way, first. I was able to schedule a doctor’s appointment. (As most teachers know, doctors’ offices book up fast during Christmas break, spring break, and summer break, and if you work sun-up to sun-down like me, going in to see the doc isn’t that easy during a normal work day, hence the “big deal” I am making this.) Secondly, I was able to visit past students at their cross-country meets. I was able to run errands in the middle of the day and actually peruse the grocery aisles without running into people. I practiced vinyasa yoga. I exercised when it was light outside. I got my house painted. I watched daytime TV. (Eh, still not that crazy about it.) Finally, I went to the beach for a long weekend with my husband and some friends. I did so many things that the luxury of time do not allow during a normal work week.

But this break gave me more than time to do my errands and play in the sand.

I had time to rest. I can be pretty lazy from time to time,but when it comes to my job, I am on autopilot and I just go, go, and go some more. Sometimes, I forget to breathe. I didn’t forget to breathe during this break. I rested my mind, my body, and my mind some more. Rest is so crucial, yet it is something educators put off because we are required to do so much ALL THE TIME. Get some rest. The result of a few days of rest is amazing.

I had time to reflect. Reflection is such a huge part of learning and becoming a better fill-in-the-blank. I spent a vast majority of my break reflecting on my teaching practice, Tweeting with other educators and continuing to learn from their best practices and clearly think about what I need to change in my classroom and what is going well. I feel like such a stronger teacher going into these next few weeks just based on my reflections.

I had time to reevaluate. With that reflection, came reevaluation (like I mentioned before). I reevaluated my classroom management, my student interactions, and my priorities at work. Reevaluating is necessary to grow, and I firmly believe in maintaining a growth mindset.

I had time to read! I lovereading. Let me say that again, I lovereading. Yet I don’t get to do it enough. I read several great books – fiction and nonfiction – during my break and it was bliss. Pure bliss.

I had time to plan. Oh, boy, did I plan! I planned the next 5 weeks and the next 5 years!

Finally, I had time to blog. I love blogging. I have always liked to write, so I am thrilled I have found this hobby and have introduced my students to it.

I am so excited to start this next chapter of the school year tomorrow! It will be a long day, I’m sure, but I feel rejuvenated, rested, and ready to

(The last picture is a selfie I took of my husband and me right after we finished our half marathon in Myrtle Beach this morning!)

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